Dems in a Pickle

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Dems in a Pickle

A road construction crew works jobs created by FDR's New Deal. This election cycle, centrist Democrats have taken to criticizing the New Deal, writes Doug Henwood: "rather odd, given the holy place that the New Deal once had in Democratic discourse." (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/wikimedia commons/cc)

I’ve written before about how the Hillary Democrats are running against hope, and how the Sanders campaign have outed them as frank corporate shills and enemies of even mild social democracy. But now even nominal liberals, or progressives, or whatever we’re calling them these days have gotten in on the act. Not content with merely saying “No!” to new programs like single-payer health insurance and free college, they’re highlighting the worst aspects of the New Deal in an effort to…well, what exactly? Promote Hillary? Fight Trump? It’s hard to tell.

A few days ago, Jamelle Bouie, “chief political correspondent for Slate Magazine and a political analyst for CBS News,” tweeted this remarkable observation (since deleted):

Bouie on 1930s

Actually, that working class movement had a lot to do with the Communist Party, which was an antiracist organization with a large black membership. Not only did it organize auto workers in Flint, it organized black farmers in the South and black urbanites in Harlem. But saying nice things about the CPUSA is not the way to keep a job with CBS News.

"When you have nothing positive to sell voters, you have to get creative."

Not long after Bouie’s ridiculous tweet came a longer instance of 1930s-bashing from Bryce Covert, “economic policy editor at ThinkProgress and a contributor to The Nation.” Covert identifies Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” as appealing to whites, especially men, longing for the days before the civil rights movement and feminism ruined things for them. That’s not a controversial point; it may be incomplete, but it’s not untrue. Covert’s innovation is to locate much of that appeal in New Deal programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance, and postwar successors like the G.I. Bill.

This is rather odd, given the holy place that the New Deal once had in Democratic discourse. Covert’s beef is that to get the votes of racist Southern Congressmen, FDR had to craft his programs to exclude black workers. This is both true and awful, though it’s not clear how they would have gotten through Congress otherwise. But instead of saying that the New Deal was a good partial model, something that should be built upon—probably the only period in American history when a sense of the collective, and not competitive individualism, dominated our political thought—she emphasizes only the exclusions, and identifies them as the source of the nostalgias that Donald Trump, not previously known as a friend of social programs, has been basing his campaign on.

Neither Bouie’s tweet nor Covert’s op-ed makes any sense unless they’re trying to discredit an ambitious social agenda. That is precisely what the Hillary Democrats are doing to fight off the persistent Sanders threat that just won’t go away. (That despite the fact that, as Gallup recently reported, a majority of Americans support a single-payer system. The least popular option is Hillary’s position, keeping Obamacare largely as is.) But how is this going to play once she wins the nomination? At first it seemed like the rightward, anti-social-democratic tilt was intended to lure moderate suburban voters who might have voted for a sane Republican (not that there was one among the initial Gang of 17) but can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump. Bernie’s voters were expected either to shut up and fall in line or just go to hell.

But that strategy might not pan out. As Dave Weigel reports in the Washington Post, Trump is winning over a lot of those suburbanites that Dem strategists were, just a few weeks ago, hoping to harvest in November. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell put it less than two months ago:

For every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that.

Now it looks like that might not happen. But that’s no cause for worry. The endlessly creative Rendell revealed a new strategy to Weigel:

Will [Trump] have some appeal to working-class Dems in Levittown or Bristol? Sure…. For every one he’ll lose 1½ , two Republican women. Trump’s comments like ‘You can’t be a 10 if you’re flat-chested,’ that’ll come back to haunt him. There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women. People take that stuff personally.

Rendell and the centrist Dems do deserve a moment of sympathy. When you have nothing positive to sell voters, you have to get creative. Trolling for votes by calling your potential supporters “ugly” is seriously creative.

Doug Henwood

Doug Henwood edits the  Left Business Observer, a newsletter he founded in 1986, He also hosts Behind the News, a weekly radio show covering economics and politics on KPFA, Berkeley, that is rebroadcast on several other stations across the U.S., and has a worldwide audience via its Internet archive. His book Wall Street is now available for free download here.

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